Senate Republicans love John Cornyn. But not all of them are sold on him being the next FBI director.
It’s nothing personal toward the affable Senate majority whip from Texas, who has built up loyalty during his years in the Senate, particularly as a two-term chairman of the GOP’s campaign arm and a high-ranking member of leadership. But with Trump’s sacking of James Comey still reverberating on Capitol Hill, some Republicans want to make sure that the next FBI director is highly credentialed, unimpeachable — and completely apolitical.
Other GOP lawmakers are confident Cornyn would leave his partisan biases at the Senate exit if he’s offered the job and accepts.
The debate over the No. 2 Senate Republican potentially succeeding Comey — he is reportedly high on the list of contenders for the post — has divided the GOP conference in a way that didn’t occur earlier this year, when former colleagues were elevated to other high-ranking national security roles.
“In this particular case, they’ve got to go beyond expectations and appoint someone who, coming in would know absolutely with every cell of their body this person was going to be someone who ran the FBI in a nonpartisan way,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who stressed that he was talking about no particular candidate.
Corker said the nominee “absolutely” must have bipartisan support, owing to the traditions of near consensus support for new directors.
“To have an FBI director at this point who doesn’t get Democratic votes would be a huge, huge mistake,” Corker added.
Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) called Cornyn an “excellent choice” to lead the FBI, but added that whether to install someone with a history of partisan politics in that role is “the question of the day for many folks.”
“Frankly, I think there’s a case to be made that you want the most qualified person who can handle the issues and lead us in the direction we need to go,” Scott said Monday. “That doesn’t eliminate partisan folks but there’s no question that the country seems to be, I think would find more confidence and credibility in someone who’s probably not involved in partisan politics right now.”
That’s a question that may soon face Senate Republicans if Trump does select the 65-year-old former state attorney general to take over for Comey. The White House’s rationale for firing Comey shifted during the course of last week, with Trump calling the former FBI chief a “showboat” and referencing Comey’s investigations into his campaign’s potential collusion with Moscow as he defended sacking him.
Cornyn was among the slate of candidates who interviewed for the job at the Justice Department on Saturday. On Monday, the normally chatty Texas Republican was mum on the possible new gig.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday that “under normal circumstances,” Cornyn would make a great FBI chief. “But these are not normal circumstances,” Graham said.
Asked about those comments, Cornyn responded: “I’m probably not going to weigh in on that right now.”
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) stressed that she thought “very highly” of Cornyn but preferred former Rep. Mike Rogers of Michigan, an ex-FBI agent who previously led the House Intelligence Committee. And Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who had previously floated former Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) to take over for Comey, also tossed out Fran Townsend, the former homeland security adviser for President George W. Bush.
“John Cornyn is highly qualified. I’d also put in a plug for Fran Townsend,” McCain said. “Cornyn is fine, he’s a great leader. But I think it might be kind of interesting and very important to have the first woman director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.”
But plenty of Cornyn’s other colleagues closed ranks behind him on Monday.
“I don’t have any concern,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who sits on the Judiciary Committee and will help vet the new FBI director candidate. “If you eliminate a lot of the highly qualified people who are politicians, I think that’s a disservice to the administration.”
Added Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.): “I think politicians are capable and John Cornyn’s particularly capable.”
Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune of South Dakota, who’d be the early favorite for majority whip should Cornyn exit the Senate, said he was a “big fan” of Cornyn and called him “supremely qualified, obviously, from a law enforcement standpoint.”
But on whether he had concerns about a politician taking over the traditionally nonpartisan role, Thune responded: “Not my decision to make. Ultimately, it’s the president’s decision.”
Cornyn and the rest of the GOP leadership team is term-limited after next year, so if he were to leave it would instigate a massive shake-up 18 months early. Further complicating Cornyn’s decision-making process, the Texan is also the favorite to succeed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) as GOP leader, though McConnell doesn’t appear to be going anywhere any time soon.
Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) said: “The only thing is, I’d hate to lose him out of the Senate.”
“I’ve heard that argument, I understand it. I think they could bring someone in out of law enforcement, that would be fine,” Hoeven said of the worry about a partisan in the FBI role. “I just wouldn’t rule out others who could be strong performers.”
Meanwhile, another elected official took himself out of the running for the FBI director job on Monday: Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), the former chief inquisitor into the Benghazi scandal and ex-prosecutor. The four-term congressman said he spoke with Attorney General Jeff Sessions about the position, but told him of “my firm conviction that I would not be the right person.”
Democrats, who are increasingly behind the idea of withholding support for a new FBI chief until a special prosecutor to oversee the federal Russia probe is selected, criticized the idea of installing Cornyn in that role.
“This is exactly the wrong moment, it would send exactly the wrong signal to nominate someone who has stood for election, Republican or Democrat,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.). Cornyn “is just obviously out of bounds. Sen. Cornyn, although a former attorney general of Texas, has spent far more of his life as a partisan elected official than as a federal prosecutor.”
“It should not be a politician,” added Sen. Angus King of Maine, an independent who caucuses with Democrats. “I love Cornyn, but not in this job.”